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Why Designers Need To Stop Feeling Sorry For Africa

Taking a patronizing approach to investing in Africa undermines the continent’s people and entrepreneurial promise, argue Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Earlier this year, the Cooper-Hewitt wrapped up "Design with the Other 90%: Cities," the second in a series of exhibitions intended to demonstrate how design can address the world’s most critical issues. This time around, the focus was on the challenges created by rapid urban growth in informal settlements. Some highlights were Digital Drum in Kampala, Uganda, a solar-powered information access point made from two durable, low-cost oil drums welded together, rugged keyboards, solar panels, and low-power tablets; a large-scale oven that uses trash as fuel to power a communal cooking facility in Kibera, Nairobi; and M-Pesa, a money-transfer service that enables urban migrants in Kenya to send money back to their villages via a mobile device.

The designers represented were local. But locals aren’t leading the pack when it comes to designing products for the bottom of the pyramid. Examples of Western efforts to care for the other 90% are many: Social entrepreneurship has grown into a full-fledged program at Harvard, Forbes started a list of the top 30 social entrepreneurs last year, and a host of major design studios have established nonprofit initiatives, including IDEO and Fuseproject. The latter designed MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop, with the goal of creating an educational project for poor schoolchildren, rather than a cheap laptop for the masses.

Unicef’s Digital Drum

It is no wonder that these projects have gained massive interest, since bottom-of-the-pyramid markets—those in the lowest global income band (with average household incomes below $1,500 a year)—provide a tantalizing market opportunity. In his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, the Wharton Business School professor C. K. Prahalad argues that businesses can combat poverty and turn a profit at the same time.

But the road to hell may well be paved with good intentions. There clearly is a bottom-of-the-pyramid market, but linking it to "aid culture"—a non-market-driven-culture—detracts from the entrepreneurial opportunity. And correlating hunger, AIDS, malaria, poverty, and illiteracy with Africa perpetuates a stereotype that is far from the optimistic, go-get-it-attitude and ambition that we’ve encountered when traveling in Africa. Take, for instance, the title of this Harvard report: "HIV/AIDS and Business in Africa and Asia: A Guide to Partnerships."

Obviously, HIV/AIDS is an issue to be addressed, but confusing and pairing regions with issues make them synonymous in the public eye. How does "Obesity/Diabetes and Business in North America: A Guide to Partnerships" sound? To us, it sounds funny, but it doesn’t sound conducive to business. How would American businesses react to foreign customers who expressed pity for them at large? I bet that seeing foreign news headlines like "Give America a Chance: Support the Fat and Illiterate" would get tiring after a while. That is what Africans experience over and over again—plus foreign-media-dominated news about Africa to the outside world.

There are many exceptions, of course. But a disappointingly big part of them share the patronizing and generalist perspectives on Africa. One of us watched William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian who built windmills to power his parts of his village, speak at a TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2007. What was so remarkable about him was his genuinely humble attitude, resisting moderator Chris Anderson’s prompts to elaborate on his own accomplishments. "I just did it" was Kamkwamba’s typical response. He is, by any standard, a great guy, but his story is now woven into this other narrative of Africa—the patronizing Western assumption that Africans are up against insurmountable odds and ethnological challenges.

What we must recognize is that Africa is the next and last continent of incredible growth. Companies that don’t have a foothold there already are serious laggards. Today, the number of consumers in Nigeria is about the same size as the number of consumers in Russia. In 50 years, there will be four Nigerian consumers for every Russian one. The population increase in Africa over the next 20 years is equal to the number of people currently living in the European Union. This means that the number of potential customers in Sub-Saharan Africa alone will increase by almost 500 million people within the next 20 years. The number of Africans will surpass the number of Chinese in 2025. In 50 years, there will be two Africans for every person living in China. Then, the most populous 10 countries are expected be as follows, with three African countries among the top 10:

  1. India – 1,551 million
  2. China - 941
  3. Nigeria - 730
  4. United States of America – 478
  5. United Republic of Tanzania - 316
  6. Pakistan - 261
  7. Indonesia - 254
  8. Democratic Republic of the Congo - 212
  9. Philippines - 178
  10. Brazil – 177*

These figures are just population growth, but when that is coupled with the already strong economic growth in that region, the opportunity is startling. Over the next five years, the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to grow faster than the world economy in general, twice as fast as the G7, and three times faster than the economies within the EU. Over the next 10 years, the rise in purchasing power in S.S.A. countries will be equal to the creation of a new market the current size of France’s economy. (France is currently the world’s fifth-largest economy.)**

What can you do? Obviously, that very much depends on what industry you’re in, but regardless of your business, you can start by treating that market with respect.

  • Don’t believe what you hear in Western media. Today, international news is controlled by geopolitically dominant nations along an East-West axis (e.g., CNN/BBC vs. Al Jazeera/CCTV. There is a pressing need for genuinely new voices. What Al Jazeera has done for the Middle East, giving the region a fresh, young, progressive voice, needs to be done for Africa. We should encourage the North-South to produce their own stories.
  • Do some research within your field and assess African needs. For example, fast-moving consumer goods are increasingly being adapted to the African palate, rather than replicating what’s available in the West.
  • Recognize that it is not a one-way street. There might be export opportunities as well as import opportunities. Go to South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, or Nigeria, and you’ll see fashions so gorgeous you will not know what hit you. Check out Ozwald Boateng, Adama Paris, and Jewel By Lisa, to name a few.

Build your own brand loyalty and shape industry structure before competitors become established. Look at the competition. For example, telecom markets are saturated with handheld devices, and competition within that area is high, whereas there’s a lack of competitive access to electricity and water and comparable infrastructural necessities.

Finally, we suggest you engage Africans with the same entrepreneurial spirit that you would approach any other great opportunity. Africa is a significant growth market that no business can afford to ignore. Many of the consumer-product companies that were quick to build a presence in Africa have already established successful, profitable businesses.

Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.

Image: Lucian Coman/Shutterstock

*Population growth is based on World Population Prospects, 2010 edition, UNPD (medium variant). Data was collected or generated by .

** The GDP figures are based on the latest forecast by IMF. Special thanks go to Dalberg’s Nneka Eze and Hans Uldall-Poulsen.